TV Company Gets Tough on Thieves : Pay or Be Prosecuted, Cable Users Told

Times Staff Writer

The free ride is over for cable-TV "pirates" in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. Storer Cable Communications says it is prepared to put illegal viewers in jail to prove it.

In a harshly worded letter intended to jolt illegal cable users into compliance, Storer last week announced a 14-day amnesty for residents illegally connected to cable. When the amnesty ends next Thursday, the company says it will launch an aggressive campaign to catch--and prosecute--anyone receiving cable TV without paying for it.

"The situation may or may not be any fault of your own," Storer general manager Jeff Eden wrote in the letter sent to about 10,000 non-subscribers in the two cities. "That is why we are trying to reach you."

Cable theft in the two beach communities is costing Storer an estimated $720,000 annually--equivalent to a quarter of the $3 million the company earned last year, Eden said. Storer estimates that at least 3,000 of the 10,300 non-subscribers in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach receive cable services illegally. Storer has 11,700 subscribers in the two cities.

Cities Lose Money

The theft also means lost revenues for the two cities, which receive a percentage of the company's total revenues as a franchise fee. Hermosa Beach receives 5% of revenues collected by Storer from customers in that city, while Manhattan Beach receives 3% of revenues from customers there.

As part of the new crackdown, the company is threatening to prosecute violators under a law enacted last year that makes theft of cable television a federal offense. Under the law, anyone receiving or assisting in the unauthorized reception of cable services can be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned for one year. Cable theft is also a state offense, carrying a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"Addresses found to be connected illegally after this 14-day period will result in prosecution to the fullest extent of the law," Eden wrote in the letter. Residents who want to take advantage of the amnesty may have the cable disconnected from their home or begin paying for the service before Aug. 1, he said.

"We won't ask any questions if you call us before we call you," the letter said.

O's Like Handcuffs

The seven-paragraph message was written on stationery bearing the slogan, "We're Getting Tough On Cable Theft," with the O's designed to resemble handcuffs. Eden said several residents from the two cities phoned Storer to complain about the letter, saying it had an accusatory tone. The company has drafted a letter of apology to those residents, he said.

"We have apologized to those people offended by the letter, but in order to combat this serious problem, it is necessary to use the tone we did," Eden said. "It assists us in convincing people how serious we are."

Cable industry organizations estimate that cable TV pirates throughout California are stealing between $49 million and $105 million worth of services each year, according to William Winter, vice president of California Cable Television Assn., an Oakland-based lobbying group. Winter said the problem has lessened somewhat since early 1983 when the state toughened its cable piracy law.

Cable theft hits cities with older cable systems hardest, Winter said, because the systems are not sophisticated enough to monitor themselves. Group W Cable, for example, which serves nearly 45,000 customers in five South Bay cities, has a far more sophisticated system than does Storer, making theft in those communities nearly impossible.

Controlled by Computer

James Bequette, coastal district manager for Group W, said the company controls all cable signals by a central computer. Service to individual residences can be turned off centrally with the computer, he said. At Storer, in contrast, workers must be sent to the residence to determine if the signal is active, and then must manually turn off the power outside the home.

Bequette said Group W virtually eliminates the theft problem by turning off service to residences not included on billing lists. "If we do our job right, we should have minimum theft problems," he said.

Two years ago, when Storer and other cable companies throughout the state first attempted to nab pirates under the state provisions, Storer successfully prosecuted a 21-year-old Hermosa Beach resident who the company said had attempted to hook into lines to receive free movie channels. A Torrance Municipal Court judge sentenced the man to 10 days in County Jail and placed him on two years probation.

Storer is counting on convictions this time, too, Eden said, in hopes of setting an example for other potential violators. Winter estimated that there have been "hundreds" of convictions statewide since 1983.

Some Think It's Free

"We are not out to get somebody who didn't know that cable costs money," Eden said. "But we are interested in addressing the situation of people whose attitude is 'forget the cable company.' "

Eden said Storer is expecting to find numerous non-subscribers who simply did not know that they should be paying for the service or who have been receiving cable because of an error by Storer. The company is not interested in prosecuting those viewers, he said, but rather in signing them up for paid service or disconnecting their service entirely.

Storer will be conducting an audit of its entire distribution area, going door-to-door and checking if cable lines leading into the homes of non-subscribers are "active." Eden said the audit will cost the company about $100,000. He did not know how long it would take.

"It is an ongoing process," he said. "We look at the letter as the initial stage in an overall campaign aimed at getting the word out."

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